Mar 28, 2013

Bills Would Prevent Serving of Real Shark Fin Soup in Texas

A MT supermarket employee walks by the dried shark fin aisle where the popular Chinese delicacy can be purchased for $39.99 a box. Current bills in Texas legislature could potentially outlaw the sale, purchase, transportation and possession of shark fins if passed. Photo by Pu Ying Huang.

By Sheyna Webster
For Reporting Texas

Authentic shark fin soup, an expensive Chinese delicacy, would be banned in Texas if bills proposed in the Texas Legislature are passed.

Since 2000, the United States has outlawed shark “finning,” when fishermen cut the fins off live sharks then return them to sea, usually to die. The original law only addressed fins that weighed no more than five percent of the weight of the carcass without its head or guts. The Shark Conservation Act passed in 2011 strengthened the law by requiring that shark fins remain attached to the carcass until arriving at port.

The sponsor of one state bills, State Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Harlingen) said in an interview that his aim is to fill the loopholes in federal law. Lucio’s HB 852 would ban the sale, purchase, transportation and possession of shark fins in Texas, regardless of where the shark was caught or taken. State Senator Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood) filed a companion bill, SB 572, in the Senate.

Similar bans on fins have been enacted in Washington, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Illinois.
Lucio said that his goal is to protect dwindling shark populations in the Gulf of Mexico and worldwide.

“Enforcement is important to limiting the demand,” Lucio said. “Other countries don’t have a federal ban like we do, and through this bill we’d be reducing the supply coming into Texas from these countries.”

Because of the expense in securing the main ingredient, shark fin soup has long served as a status symbol in China. But increased wealth among the Chinese and in immigrant populations led to worldwide concern about the practice. According to the Humane Society International, Taiwan requires the shark to be landed intact, but no other Asian country has domestic legislation banning shark finning or the trade of shark fins.

Lucio acknowledges that shark fins are a part of Chinese culture. “But I think the pressure from a global standpoint in the long term will be such that they’re going to have to take larger, more impactful steps,” Lucio said.

The government of the People’s Republic of China has removed the soup from state banquets. Some restaurants in China are also taking the soup off their menus.

MT Supermarket, the popular Asian market, sells dried shark fins at $39.99 per dried fin. Thai Tran, assistant manager at the supermarket, said the ban most likely wouldn’t have an effect on business because not many people purchase shark fin. He says the older generation believes in its health benefits, but the younger people aren’t as absorbed in the cultural significance of shark fin soup.

“The younger generation has not been introduced to it as much as the older generation,” Tran said. “And they tend to be more aware of the current research on shark finning.”

Shanghai Restaurant, off Middle Fiskville Road, does not serve shark fin soup. An employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as to not publicly criticize the restaurant community, said that most restaurants in Texas sell imitation shark fin soup, and the demand for authentic shark fin is decreasing among newer Asian-American populations.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that tens of millions of sharks are killed every year for the purpose of making shark fin soup. Worldwide, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species estimates that 30 percent of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction. Katie Jarl, the Texas state director for the Humane Society of the United States, said that once the sharks are finned, they fall prey to other sharks or bleed to death. Because sharks have few young, their numbers are dropping before they can repopulate sufficiently.

“Sharks are the apex predator of the sea. Female sharks are lucky if they give birth twice in their lifetime,” Jarl said. “When the apex predator is eliminated or reduced the way they have been, it affects everything from top to bottom, from the coral at the bottom of the ocean to the fish near the top.”

If the state ban passes, enforcement would fall into the hands of Texas Parks and Wildlife. The law would go into effect in July 2013, and violation would be considered a class B Parks and Wildlife Code misdemeanor. Lucio said he feels the legislation will pass smoothly because of increased concern about conservation among Republicans and Democrats.

“I think those who are sensitive to conservation, which is growing here in the capitol, will understand how important sharks are to maintaining our vibrant ecosystem,” Lucio said. “And it’s just good, solid public policy.”

Pu Huang contributed reporting.